Family History Rewritten: Unanswered Questions

The tale of the Edwards brothers is one that I researched a while ago for a friend and colleague; whose father had handed down a couple of family tales about his father Amos Edwards and uncle Ernest Edwards. My friend Paul had mentioned to me the tales about grandad Amos and great uncle Ernest, and like many family tales, he’d not thought much about them and accepted them as fact, but neither had he researched either man other than a cursory check on the internet. He knew I had an interest in family history, so with the added bonus of a couple of tales thrown in, I agreed to dig a bit deeper.

With everything I do by way of research, I add the caveat that the truth isn’t always what it seems and that the risk of busting family history as myth is a real risk.

Before we venture into the archives, now is the best time to spell out the tales; the type of story that families cling to as sometimes painful memories fade into the distant past. It should be known that Amos survived the Great War but Ernest did not. We can’t ask Amos now, but his son has handed down the tales to Paul.

Amos sowed his legacy by pointing to his head saying “I got this scar in the war!” and “My brother died in my arms on The Somme” which if true is some tale.

So let’s start our investigation by setting out a little family history.

Amos Edwards was born at Ely, Cambridgeshire in 1889, and his younger brother at nearby Prickwillow in 1891 – two of eight children to Amos and Helen Edwards. Around that time Amos Snr was a farm labourer and the family lived at Middle Fen Bank near Ely; then Burnt Fen, Prickwillow – that Fenland hinterland out in the nowhere between where the three counties of Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk merge in the black peatlands.

We’ll start with Ernest, because we know that he didn’t survive the war and it’s his death that is central to one of the tales. Sadly, we don’t have a picture of Ernest, and his service file didn’t survive the blitz of 1940, but the public record gives us some clues (and questions) about his war service.

Pension Card of Ernest Edwards
Medal Index Card for Ernest Edwards

The pension record for Ernest shows that he was listed as 4th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment TF and his Medal Index Card shows he enlisted with the service number 4139, before being renumbered 201391 – probably during early 1917. Now the fact that he was listed as a TF man says to me that he would have been a 2/4th Battalion man; although both 1/4th and 2/4th were raised as TF battalions, not becoming the ‘4th’ until 1918 when 2/4th were dissolved and merged. More of this later, as there is a twist to the story.

We see that Ernest left a widow, Alice, and marriage records show that Ernest married Alice Swinger at Gedney in May 1915, corresponding to our belief that he enlisted at Spalding in late May 1915 – therefore Ernest and Alice tied the knot, as so many did, just before he went off to war. They had no children.

We know nothing of Ernest’s war other than his death on 8th June 1917, and that he is listed among the 72,000 names on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing as belonging to the 2/4th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment. If he joined the 2/4th in May 1915 we can only surmise what part he played in their war – in July 1915 they were part of 177th Brigade, 59th (2nd North Midland) Division, and were in Ireland dealing with the unrest there, and then to France in February 1917. We can only speculate at which point Ernest found himself as part of a fighting unit in France, as his records don’t give us a date of entry into the theatre.

All of this speculation meanwhile, is crucial to the family tale that he died in Amos’ arms on the Somme.

We will come back to Ernest in due course…

At the outbreak of war and on enlistment, Amos was working as a teamsman at Popenhoe Farm, Emneth Hungate and was married to Rose, with three young children. The importance of his role probably caused him to delay his enlistment for a year after his younger brother, but by then conscription had been enacted and his time to join had come.

Attestation Papers of Amos Edwards

As can be seen, we have more luck with Amos because his service file survives, but less luckily for him this is where the family tales begin to unravel. We’ll never know if they were tales told in jest, or whether they were simply told to wide-eyed children desperate for tales from the battlefied; but should you peruse the details recorded when he enlisted at King’s Lynn on May 15th 1916 you’ll note that Amos has a scar listed on the left side of his head, and two on his right hand…..

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if Amos told the entire truth when telling fireside tales long after the war, and whether that first tale survives scrutiny.

What we do have though, is an accurate record the rest of his war.

We can see from his papers that initially he was sent to Felixstowe and the 3rd Battalion Suffolk Regiment for basic training, but then quickly to 176th Machine Gun Company, Machine Gun Corps, at Aldershot, and that he entered the European theatre in France on 19th March 1917. 176th MGC were Divisional MGC for 38th (Welsh) Division who found themselves at that time in the line from Armentieres up to the Ypres Salient in preparation for the 3rd Battle of Ypres which would kick off on 31st July that year. We know that Amos was separated from 176 MGC in October 1917 and from there would become part of 274th MGC of the 14th (Indian) Division in Mesopotamia, where he would serve out a quiet war until 1919 when he returned home having reached the rank of Sergeant.

So what of the tale that Ernest died in his brothers arms?

We know that Amos was with 176th MGC. On June 8th 1917 they were part of 38th (Welsh) Division whose elements were in the line at Elverdinge to the north of Ypres.

Meanwhile, if Ernest was with 2/4th Lincolnshires, they were much further south, at Beaucamps in the Cambrai sector, having entered the line the day before.

War Diary 2/4th Lincolnshires

As can be seen, the brothers were in separate sectors, many miles apart, and therefore for Ernest to have died in his brothers arms seems impossible. But in searching for this truth, we uncover another mystery lost in facts and therefore come to question the records surrounding the death of Ernest. It seems an incontrovertible fact that Ernest died on 8th June 1917, but what do we know of his death? This is where the official record may lead us astray.

We recall that Ernest’s pension card records him as a TF man, and that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists him at Thiepval as belonging to the 2/4th. He is also listed on Emneth War Memorial as a 2/4th man.

I enquired with the CWGC and they stated that Ernest was on the ledger for the 2/4th Battalion, so was to their satisfaction correctly listed at Thiepval. But what of the available paper trail and does it support this?

Looking at the 2/4th War Diary above, although ‘other ranks’ are never routinely named as killed in diaries, there is no mention of any casualties until 15th June when two other ranks are killed, and three wounded. Surely this adjutant would have listed a man killed on 8th June? I wondered if Ernest was a 2/4th man at all, or was elsewhere.

Red Cross Record

Above is the Red Cross & Order of St John ‘Wounded & Missing’ record showing L/Cpl 201391 Ernest Albert Edwards, of Platoon V Company B, 4th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment, was recorded as missing on June 8th 1917, and that an enquiry was made to see if he had been identified as a casualty or Prisoner of War. The additional detail here of Platoon and Company will prove helpful as we shall see.

‘4’ Battalion also implies to me 1/4th Battalion, and this is where more documentary evidence exists.

Medal Roll 1/4th Battalion Lincolnshire Regiment

As can be seen above, Ernest is clearly recorded on the Medal Roll for 1/4th Battalion which tells me he belonged to them at the time of his death. It does not mention any service with the 2/4th.

The confusion continues with the Register of Soldiers Effects, below.

The Register of Soldiers Effects has two entries for Ernest. The substantive record has him as a 1/4th man, but interestingly there is a second crossed-out entry which appears to show 2/4th, albeit the handwriting is inconclusive. In anycase, someone much nearer the facts in time than us decided it was a mistake. So with the medal roll and register of effects at odds with the memorial records, what other evidence do we have to suggest who Ernest belonged to, or importantly where he might have died?

I decided to investigate the war diaries for 1/4th Battalion, who were part of 138th Brigade, 46th (North Midland) Division. The Brigade diary and accounts from the Battalion diary paint an entirely different picture to that of the 2/4th. I was drawn to details, that to my mind, may answer the questions posed.

Lens Sector Trench Map

Brigade Narrative for June 8th 1917

Assemby Trenches M.24.C
1/4th Lincolnshire Objectives – June 8th 1917 – tMapper

Assemby Trenches and Direction of Advance

The above Brigade narrative and maps of the Lens sector show the action of June 8th, in which 1/4th Lincolnshires were involved as the left-hand battalion and with the 5th Leicesters to their right, at Cite de Riaumont in Lievin. The action was an assault on enemy positions at Fosse 3 and Hill 65, with a Zero Hour of 8.30pm. The assembly trenches in which Ernest likely died in square M.24.C are in what was the brigade boundary shown as Absolom Trench, and now roughly between the modern Rue Breguet & Rue Legendre. Their objectives were enemy lines across the railway cutting that is now the dual carriageway D58. Reading this information seemed far more likely to be a source for the action and place of death of Ernest than anything else written by the 2/4th Battalion. I then found the following account:

1/4th Lincolnshire War Diary

The above extract of the war diary entry from Major Fielding-Johnson is remarkable in its poignant description of that perfect summers evening as they went into battle; but importantly for us it describes in some detail the battering they took from German mortar fire while waiting for zero in the assembly trenches. Crucially for us, it describes ‘B’ Company fairing worst in the bombardment – is it a coincidence that Ernest was listed as a ‘B’ Company man in his Red Cross report?

1/4th Lincolnshire War Diary

1/4th Lincolnshire War Diary

The full 1/4th diary entry above spells out the bitter fight that ‘B’ Company faced – having been badly beaten up in the assembly trenches, they fought their way out of the railway cutting into enemy ground, before being eventually beaten back by artillery fire and hand to hand fighting from Ahead Trench back into the railway cutting. Somewhere amongst all this sits my hypothesis for the final moments of Ernests life.

Ahead Trench

Brigade Map

I’ve been unable to reconcile the differences in the records for Ernest, as history lists him as both a 1/4th and 2/4th man depending on your source of choice. As far as memorials go, the CWGC appear happy that he is correctly listed at Thiepval, rather than at Arras where the other missing men of 1/4th Battalion from that action at Cite de Riaumont are engraved.

There are sixteen 1/4th Lincolnshire Regiment men listed by the CWGC as killed that day, 13 of which are on the Arras Memorial as missing, with fourteen 2/4th men listed for the same date. Two of the 1/4th names are buried at Loos British Cemetery, the other (Ernest Everton) at Aix-Nouelle Communal Cemetery Extension.

201812 Frank Thornley, and 201792 Ernest Everton are both also recorded as of ‘B’ Company, presumably comrades of Ernest; Frank is also on the Red Cross missing enquiry list for the same date as Ernest Edwards. Perhaps all three were standing next to each other when the mortar struck them as they waited for the SOS flare. Maybe they survived the initial onslaught and were killed as they attempted to fight their way out of the railway cutting or in the several hours of hand to hand fighting that took place in enemy lines just beyond it.

All the other 2/4th men who fell that day are listed at Thiepval.

The lucky ones who were buried or found were concentrated from places like Caldron (Red Mill) Cemetery back to Loos. We’ll probably never know if Ernest is among the unknowns.

So a total of thirty ‘4th’ Lincolnshire men fell on June 8th, yet only the 1/4th diary records an action on that date.

I accept and respect the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s decision not to amend the record for Ernest; after all the act of updating one of the most important war memorials in the British psyche is no task to be undertaken lightly, especially after having undergone a very recent and costly refurbishment. Indeed, correcting history is not as simple as merely updating a spreadsheet or writing a blog. A nagging question remains though because of the disparity in the available documents.

The only explanation I can find that might help us understand how Ernest came to draft from 2/4th Battalion to 1/4th are two entries in the respective war diaries. On 3rd March 1917, the 2/4th diary, while they were newly arrived in France, describes a number of men – “1 officer certain NCO’s + 1 platoon per company” – being separated for supply to front line units. Their destination isn’t recorded.

2/4th Battalion Diary – 3rd March 1917

It might be a coincidence, but 5 days later while at St Amand on March 8th, the 1/4th diary notes the arrival of a draft of 50 men from the Divisional Depot. While I don’t know if this is evidence of a transfer between the two battalions from separate divisions, it might give us reason to think Ernest made his switch in March 1917 having not long arrived in France, and before he’d seen any frontline action.

1/4th Battalion Diary – 8th March 1917

When I put my findings to Paul and his family, it was an emotional experience to recall the memories of Amos and Ernest. Even though I was responsible for debunking the tale of the scar on Amos’ head, and show that they didn’t share Ernest’s last moments together, a great deal of good came from it.

Being a Machine Gunner, I was able to show from their, as usual, detailed diaries that when Amos was separated from 176th MGC in October 1917 he belonged to No.2 Section, and from that and thanks to their records, able to give the family a position for Amos and the guns at the start of 3rd Ypres; at Pilkem Ridge just north of Marsouin Farm firing on Iron Cross. They now have a much clearer picture of what a horseman in a machine gun company would have gone through and the importance of the role to infantry units.

At least when the family look back, they’ll potentially be able to follow in the footsteps of Amos on that famous day in July 1917 and put aside some of the tall tales; for his was a real war, albeit for only a short time in Flanders before he was sent to Mesopotamia and a different type of conflict, and to balance some of the sadness attached to his life.

When Amos returned home in early 1919, he had been away from home for 23 months without contact with his young family.

The final family tale is that Rose had given him up for dead, and was pregnant by another man. The geneaology is there to be seen, but not to be disclosed here. This must have been a blow to him, but Amos and Rose went on to raise their family together, until she died in 1957. Amos tragically passed by suicide in 1963.

I wonder what the loss of a brother and the other outcomes of the war did to his mental health, and it maybe might explain the tall tales as a safety blanket from the reality of what he went through.

At least I’ve given the family more knowledge about the likely location in which Ernest fell. My hypothesis is that he was with the 1/4th on June 8th 1917 at Cite de Riaumont, and that he might have been somehow drafted from the 2/4th. An unanswered question for another day – maybe in the future all the facts will align. For now, the family have a much more detailed dossier of facts and events tracking the progress of Amos in particular, and a summary of his whereabouts. As for his brother, it is a much more poignant account because of the many missing clues causing us to use our imagination and educated guesswork about his final hours.

Ernest is out there somewhere, waiting to be found. Whether he is buried as an unknown soldier somewhere, or still lost in the soils of France; or if there is still a question to be answered about who he belonged to and where he should be memorialised, it is unimportant for now. What is most important of all is that he, like all of the others, will be remembered in perpetuity.

Lievin Today ©Google

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